Britain's Dark Places

It's a different island but a disturbingly familiar tale of suspended rights and justice denied.

Human rights groups are calling two high-security British prisons that hold at least 14 terrorism suspects the United Kingdom's version of Camp Delta, the detention lockup on the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay.

The detainees at Belmarsh and Woodhill prisons are all foreign nationals and asylum seekers, and many have been imprisoned without trial for two years. Arrested after 9-11, the suspects are held on the basis of evidence neither they nor their lawyers have seen. Their advocates say that the majority are North African, and that immigration violations play no role in their detentions. The men, say their lawyers, are kept alonein their cells for up to 22 hours a day.

In the last few weeks, testimony from one of the suspects has sparked a vigorous debate on the detentions.

"They prevented us from going to Friday prayers," Mahmoud Abu Rideh, a Palestinian, wrote to The Guardian. Abu Rideh, who his lawyer says is a past victim of Israeli torture, was recently transferred from London's Belmarsh to a high security psychiatric hospital after he attempted suicide.

"Every 24 hours there is only one-hour walk in front of the cells and half an hour walking inside a cage. You do not see sun. You cannot tell whether it is night or day. Everything is dark."

Abu Rideh's lawyer, Gareth Peirce, who also represents a number of other detainees, said in a recent statement that all the suspects are political refugees, and that a number of them are torture victims. " 'National security' has a seductive ring," she said. "It frightens off political disagreement."

The detainees are considered "Category A" prisoners, or men who pose an exceptional risk should they escape. Conditions in Belmarsh for such prisoners are harsh, and have come under fire from rights groups in the past. The September 11 detainees there include a polio victim who has been denied the use of his wheelchair, and a man who has no arms and must rely on other prisoners for assistance.

The British government has told the detainees that they are free to return to their home countries. For men who fear persecution at home, their lawyers say, this is a Hobson's choice. The government admitted during the appeals process that it does not have enough evidence to try the detainees. And international law prohibits the U.K. from forcibly returning anyone to countries where they might face torture.

Further, the detentions mean the families of the suspects are forced into seclusion. "Once the stigma [of 'terrorist'] is attached," notes Livio Zilli of Amnesty International, "it's very, very powerful."

So they remain in limbo, despite recent recommendations by a government panel that seem to provide a tunnel out. The report by the Privy Counselor Review Committee notes that if the men are released, surveillance on them could be increased, or they could be electronically "tagged" to keep track of their movements. One lawyer for the detainees says either of these options is preferable to indefinite imprisonment.

The suspects at Belmarsh and the handful confined at Woodhill in Milton Keynes, are being held under emergency anti-terrorism laws passed in Britain three months after September 11. There has been surprise at the length of the detentions in the U.K., where criticism of the Bush administration and its war on terror has been widespread.

"[The detentions] undercut our moral authority," says Clive Stafford Smith, an English American lawyer who is representing British detainees held at Guantánamo's Camp Delta in a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. "Unfortunately, they've painted enough of a pretext of due process," Smith says. "It's been a slow thing to create pressure."

Abu Rideh's letter comes amid calls for the British government to work harder for the release of nine Britons held at Guantánamo Bay. Last month, rumors floated that some of the men there would be freed for Christmas. According to published reports, British Home Secretary David Blunkett blocked the release out of fear that there was insufficient evidence to get convictions in trials in the U.K.

The U.S. government has indicated that a British trial is a precondition of the men's release from the base in Cuba.

A spokesman for Blunkett told the Voice that he believes that the Guantánamo detainees "should receive a fair trial with proper appeal procedures or they should be released."

But for the men in Belmarsh, the rules are different, and in this respect, a recent British anti-terrorism law and its consequences will be familiar to Americans. As with the thousands of detainees held here after September 11, the effect of the law is that noncitizens are subject to a different set of judicial standards than citizens when it comes to suspicions of terrorism.

Britain's version of the Patriot Act is called the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 (ATCSA), legislation that Amnesty has charged creates a "shadow criminal justice system." Section 4 of ATCSA gives the British government broad powers to arrest and indefinitely detain foreigners it suspects are terrorists. There is no right to trial in the new legislation, and no obligation to present evidence to the detained or their lawyers.

Further, critics charge, there have been indications that the British government has been willing to consider evidence against terrorism suspects secured by foreign governments using torture. The recent Amnesty report on the ATCSA relates the testimony of a British MI5 agent, who, during an appeal hearing for the Belmarsh men, revealed that MI5 finds it possible that evidence extracted under torture could be reliable. The appeals court hearing the case seemed to agree.

"It may well appear that to admit such evidence would result in unfairness," the appeal judgment read. "But it does not in our view justify the conclusion that information obtained by a third party by methods which breached Article 3"—of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits torture—"is inadmissible."

The detainees held at Belmarsh lost their most recent appeal for release.

One of Natalia Garcia's clients said he feels like he has been "buried alive." The man, whose identity and nationality cannot be revealed because of a court order, was taken from his home in December 2001. For three months following his imprisonment, he wasn't allowed to contact either his family or a lawyer. His wife is now supported by state welfare.

"It's hard to imagine the psychological effects of this kind of imprisonment," says Garcia, who represents two terrorism suspects held at Woodhill prison. "There's an allegation against you, and it's totally vague. You are suspected of fundraising for a certain group, or 'support activities.' But they never say what the activities are, or where the funds are. So, all you can say is 'no.' "

Garcia says that while most of the evidence against her clients is discussed in closed court sessions, the sessions that are public are "riddled with inaccuracies."

In one instance, she says, the authorities produced a surveillance report of a meeting that took place at the home of a suspect.

"It was 10 to 15 men," she said, "but they failed to take into account that this was Eid, a Muslim religious festival, when everybody gets together to celebrate. The men had all dropped off their wives who were celebrating at another house. It was a perfectly normal social celebration. We pointed it out in a hearing, and the court acknowledged it."

Garcia says that because of the secrecy surrounding the detentions, she feels powerless to represent her clients properly. "They don't have real access to solicitors," she said. "We're like window dressing."

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